Plants, Pollinators, and Programming at the Memphis River Parks Partnership
At the new Pollinator Pod near Beale Street Landing on what promised to be a scorching June day, a red admiral butterfly perched on a prairie blazing star while bumblebees busied themselves with the anise hyssop and a red-winged blackbird called from the river birches. Under the trees, Meg Johnson, Director of Special Projects and Design for the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), Jasmine Stokes, MRPP’s External Affairs Associate, and I discussed their organization’s goal to enhance biodiversity along the five miles of Mississippi River shoreline that fall within the 250 acres of parkland.
It is a daunting task, which requires a combination of short and long term interventions, but one with the potential to have a substantial impact on this area’s environmental resiliency.
Economics and Biodiversity along the Flyway
Environmental resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to continue functioning amid and recover from a disturbance. Those disturbances can be natural – flooding, tornadoes, and fires – or due to human influences – overfishing, deforestation, and agricultural runoff. When ecosystems cannot recover, humans, as well as wildlife, are in danger of losing benefits ranging from clean water to aesthetics.
Memphis sits on the Lower Mississippi River (LMR), defined by the Audubon Society as the section of the Mississippi River Basin and watersheds that stretch from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. The LMR is part of the Mississippi Flyway, an essential migration route for monarch butterflies and over 325 bird species that stretches from central Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The Audubon Society’s recently launched study of this area shows that the land around Memphis is extremely challenged ecologically.
It’s not just about the birds and butterflies. The Mississippi River contributes an estimated $400 billion to the national economy annually, and over 12 million people live within the river basin. In 2018, the Port of Memphis, the fifth largest inland port in the United States, and the businesses under its jurisdiction contributed an estimated $9.27 billion to the economy. Domestic river cruises are currently surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
Making the riverfront more resilient has potential to benefit both wildlife and humans.
Memphis River Parks Partnership’s Role
The MRPP parks are at a significant spot – the confluence of the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers via the Wolf River Harbor. For decades, the parks’ landscapes were “a sea of lawn,” according to Johnson, “which is not ecologically supportive.” MRPP is currently investing in holistically diversifying the landscape in ways that “balance the needs for views and flexible use but also can support the different wildlife coming up and down the river.”
“The incremental phasing has been important to make sure that field operations can adapt and hire as needed to make sure that maintenance practices evolve…to make sure we can take care of these landscapes.”
One project this summer is a census of all the trees in the entire park system, which is being undertaken by two summer interns. They are geolocating each tree, identifying its species, scale, and general health condition, to get a snapshot of the park now. The census will help Johnson plan strategically for the future by identifying where the canopy may be aging out or where limited diversity makes them vulnerable to disease pressure and pests. As she said, they are “studying what we have now with an eye to making the park more ecologically resilient.”
This year there have been multiple tree planting events along the bluff and Mud Island’s south lawn to “invest in future shade in this extremely exposed stretch of the loop trail.” Thousands more trees will be planted in Tom Lee Park as the project gets closer to completion.
The Pollinator Pod near Beale Street Landing has existed in multiple forms since the Landing’s construction. However, this spring, Memphis River Parks Partnership hosted a volunteer planting event. Johnson said the goal is to “transform the experience of this park and turn it into a demonstration garden to talk to people about different types of habitat creation, why pollinators are important, and what we can do to better support them.”
The pod features three different habitat types that individuals can replicate in their own outdoor spaces including a colorful, perennial wildflower bed, a small meadow with native grasses surrounded by low shrubs, and a planting utilizing trees. It is Johnson’s hope that visitors understand that regardless of the size of their backyard or balcony, they can create “viable and diverse habitats to support an array of different types of animals.”
Johnson, a landscape architect by training, encourages gardeners to “think about your planting like a forest. You have your taller flowers that are like the canopy and then your mid-level and then the ground covers that will cover the soil. You want to think not just about your dots of attractions but in a vertically layered way that can help minimize weeds over time and also create different types of habitats.”
Connecting People to the Riverfront
MRPP’s mission is to “work with and for the people of Memphis to trigger the transformative power of our river,” which means connecting Memphians to the riverfront is critical to their work.
The renovations at Tom Lee Park, which is currently under construction, is in service of this goal. So is MRPP’s summer programming series. River Quests invite individuals and families to come to the river for self-guided explorations. These tasks include locating pollinators, birds, and trees, visiting the different river parks, enjoying the sunset over the river, and a few special events.
The goal is to encourage people to have different types of experience by framing the program as a photo treasure hunt. According to Stokes visitors “can do multiple things in one day, but it’s intended to come back and experience it multiple times.” Johnson chimed in that the prize is the same no matter how long it takes.
I am a native Memphian, and I certainly fall into the category of citizens disconnected from the river. Apart from one visit to BBQ Fest, a walk on the river model at Mud Island, and a riverboat ride in 8th grade, I don’t recall going to the Mississippi when I was kid. Frankly, there wasn’t that much to do.
I decided to take my kids – who are 8 and 6 – down to the parks the morning after I spoke with Johnson and Stokes to take on a few challenges. We went early, but not quite early enough to beat all the sun.
In the 45 minutes we spent by the river, we identified three pollinators (bumblebees and red admiral and skipper butterflies) and four birds, though we only caught photos of three (mockingbird, red-winged blackbird, robin, and swallows), took a selfie with Big John, and framed our “hidden wonder.” Our pictures are not great, but I am hopeful that the ranger will give us credit for trying when we go back to get our stamps. (The Fourth Cup in the River Garden, where the stamps are being given, is open from 11 am – sunset, Thursday through Sunday. It was getting hot, and my kids were not up for waiting.)
We have three challenges completed with five more to do before the end of September. It will bring us down to the riverfront at least two more times to catch a sunset and work our way down the entire park system. In that sense, the River Quest is doing what it set out to do, bringing my mid-city family downtown to explore a key part of our geography and ecosystem. It is succeeding in another way too. I’m thinking about how to add more mid-level plants to my flower beds so that I can provide maximum habitats for pollinators.
Because every bit of biodiversity helps make our ecosystem more resilient, whether you live next door to the river or a few miles up the road.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.